More ‘multilateral’ defense efforts with Philippine allies urged

Cecille Suerte Felipe - The Philippine Star
More �multilateral� defense efforts with Philippine allies urged
In this Apr. 24, 2019 photo, a US Marine takes accountability for equipment during a maritime prepositioning force onload at Subic Bay.
US Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. Mark Fike

MANILA, Philippines — The latest case of Chinese provocation in the West Philippine Sea – beaming a military grade laser light on crewmembers of a Philippine coast guard vessel – should highlight the need for more collaborative efforts with allies like the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, Sen. Francis Tolentino said yesterday.

“It highlights the need for more collaborative efforts with our allies.So, the purpose is to have regional security and peace within our region,” Tolentino, vice-chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, said referring to the Feb. 6 incident where a Chinese coast guard vessel trained a military grade laser light at a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) boat, temporarily blinding its crew.

The PCG boat was escorting a vessel on a resupply errand for a small Filipino military outpost on BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

“The very purpose of a VFA or any security agreement is meant to promote peace, not to incite war or aggression,” Tolentino said in an interview with “The Chiefs” on OneNews Philippines.

Tolentino said he is backing the conduct of a multilateral show of maritime security cooperation with the US and other regional allies of the Philippines, especially those belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) amid the latest Chinese provocation.

“I don’t think it should be seen as a ‘harnessing the drums of war,’ but I think it should be seen as, in the context of promoting safety and stability in the region, maintaining a balance of power, etc.,” he added.

“But you cannot say that to defuse the tension is to do nothing, to defuse the tension would mean that either you do not do anything or you do something that would positively defuse the tension,” he pointed out.

“It matters to us because we lack the capacity, we lack the resources, we lack the wherewithal to deal with our current problems relative to the West Philippine Sea, we lack the resources in dealing with… in confronting calamities, disaster, etc.,” he said.

Tolentino said the VFA with Australia and the proposed VFA with Japan should not be viewed with the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951 as the backdrop.

He said the proposed Philippine-Japan VFA would probably be similar to the one with Australia, which is focused on joint training exercises, transfer of technology and equipment and mobilization of forces for disaster response.

No provocation

When told that another VFA could be provocative, Tolentino said that as early as 2011, the governments of the Philippines and Japan had already signed a joint statement on comprehensive promotion of strategic partnership that led to the delivery of two or three aircraft from the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to the Philippines.

“So, it’s ongoing since 2011, that’s been 12 years ago and then there was another joint statement I think that was signed. So, these things are happening for the last 12 years and incrementally it fosters the mutual intention of both countries to secure peace in the region,” he added.

“So, we disregard first the current tension between Japan and China in the Senkaku Island area but for us, I think the collaborative efforts would not just lead to military exercise, but it would even lead to information exchange, capacity building and maritime security and a lot of other things,” he noted.

Tolentino also maintained that joint patrols with other ASEAN nations with claims in the South China Sea would ensure freedom of navigation and the exercise of fishing rights.

“I have been espousing that joint Philippine-US Coast Guard patrol but we might even extend that to being a multilateral patrol to include other ASEAN claimants... it will need, not just a sole Philippine initiative but the inclusion and involvement of other countries, interested or not – but interested in maintaining the freedom of navigation within that area,” the senator said.

He added that multilateral cooperation should also cover disaster-related exercises.

“It’s not just for joint patrol. I would think that it can expand and perhaps in ensuring that fishermen, from whatever jurisdiction, can – with agreements of course – can freely utilize the fruits of the sea,” the senator said.


But deepening defense cooperation with the US and Japan could have alarming security repercussions, according to Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano.

“We must be very intentional and very deliberate in our actions. So with the announcement of more bases of the US under EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) and announcements that there are going to be joint patrols, what will get in return in dealing with situations like this?” Cayetano told reporters.

He stressed that conditions in the West Philippine Sea as well as the geopolitical dynamics in the region are very complicated that any miscalculation on the part of government could ignite an already tense situation.

The EDCA between the Philippines and the US allows a small number of American troops to be deployed at pre-agreed locations on a rotational basis for joint activities, including cross-training.

He said the government cannot just cozy up to rivals of China and not expect countermoves from Beijing, which has several militarized artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea.

He said while he has yet to have a full briefing on the laser incident, he believed it was related to proposals to have a VFA with Japan, which is also pushing to have a trilateral security cooperation with the US, and to hold joint patrols in the South China Sea.

He said based on his experience as the country’s top diplomat during the Duterte administration, the latest incidents of Chinese harassments may have underlying reasons, including internal politics in China, tensions between Washington and Beijing or even disagreements among members of the ASEAN.

“So, if that (security cooperation with US and Japan) is going to be the strategy, or even regardless of strategy, something will happen. But the pivot going to joint patrols with the US, we should expect that. Again I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not saying it’s wrong. What I’m saying is what can the US guarantee us when these things happen,” Cayetano said.

He recalled the miscalculation that happened in 2012 during the Aquino administration when a Navy ship was sent to respond to reports of the presence of several Chinese fishing vessels at the Panatag Shoal, which is just over 120 nautical miles from Zambales. Chinese vessels ended up controlling the shoal.

Cayetano said there is also no guarantee that the US will quickly come to the country’s assistance in the event of some armed conflict in the West Philippine Sea, as there are varying interpretations of the provisions of the MDT as well as general statements from Washington.

Sen. Bong Go said he is “bothered and deeply concerned” over reports of the latest Chinese harassment.

“Ayungin Shoal is ours and we have been running resupply missions since we established a permanent post aboard BRP Sierra Madre. I am appealing to the Executive to promptly act on what appeared to be an unsafe act against our people,” he said.

“It is good that our government has already filed a diplomatic protest against China’s aggressive activities in Ayungin Shoal. I am confident that President Marcos will always promote our rights in the West Philippine Sea and fight for what is ours,” he said. – Paolo Romero

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